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‘A load of rubbish’: Joyce backs police against media in crackdown on leaks

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Mr Joyce said the Australian Federal Police was required to investigate breaches of the law and search a media organisation with a warrant, given the importance of stopping people within government from leaking documents.

“The protection of their own turf is understandable but over-cooked,” he said of the media protests against the police raids.

“It is not really their sin – it’s the sin of the person who hands them the document, rather than their sin in publishing it.

“You can’t blame the media for doing the media’s job but you most certainly can say that prior to the document getting to the media, something illegal happened.

“And not only did it happen, but the person who did it would have been in full knowledge that what they were doing was illegal. In fact, they would be fully aware of the penalties against doing such a thing.”

University of Queensland professor and former al-Jazeera journalist Peter Greste condemned the “shocking” raids and said Australia needed new laws to protect journalists and sources, while human rights barrister Geoffrey Robertson wrote that the police action was a sign of a second-rate country.

“Journalists must be free to cultivate and to protect sources of important information about government agencies and businesses, otherwise news will diminish to what is fed to them by public relations departments, press releases and ministerial statements,” Mr Robertson wrote.

But Mr Joyce said there was a “malevolence” in the leaking of government information to the media, which warranted police investigations and penalties.

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“The people who are privy to those documents are fully aware of the consequences of disseminating them,” he said.

“The penalties to them should not be the same as the penalties to the media – the media are doing their job. If you give them a document they’ll print it.

“Nevertheless, you can’t say that this is a law that you can put aside at any time of your choosing – that it is purely up to you and your conscience as to whether you believe a document is secret or not.”

Mr Joyce also countered claims in the media that the Australian Federal Police went too far by executing search warrants against News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst and the ABC last week over separate media reports based on leaked information that the AFP says have the potential to undermine national security.

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“The AFP will do the AFP’s job. The AFP are independent of politicians, and the AFP have the right to arrest politicians,” he said.

“And the AFP have the right of entry to investigate a crime. And you can’t say ‘I’m above the law’ if you are part of the process of a crime.”

Mr Joyce said he did not think “for one second” that the authorities would try to jail Ms Smethurst or the ABC, but would have “very serious questions” for those who leaked information.

Sydney barrister Bret Walker SC, a former Independent National Security Legislation Monitor, said the police actions last week were the latest sign of problems with national laws to deal with whistleblowers, investigative journalism and the appropriate level of the freedom of the press.

“I have no patience whatever for the idea that there is no such thing as a national security secret – I think there are many things which need to be kept secret for the purposes of national security,” Mr Walker told the ABC.

However, he said there had to be protections for those within government who wanted to expose wrongdoing in the public interest.

Whistleblowing is there because bad things do happen in government. Government is composed of people and people do bad things.

Bret Walker SC

“Whistleblowing is there because bad things do happen in government. Government is composed of people and people do bad things,” he said.

“In a democracy ruled by law, we should be welcoming, not persecuting, the release of information ultimately to the public … about suspicions of wrongdoing in government, so long as those suspicions are formed in good faith.

“So we don’t have whistleblowing legislation that’s any good at all, really.”

David Crowe is chief political correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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